Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 3.5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 4/5
Villiera was the last tasting of my day out to the North of Stellenbosch having tasted at Morgenhof, Quoin Rock, Laibach and Slaley. Just off the R304 and close to the N1, it was an ideal last port of call on my way back to Cape Town. The entrance was easy to find and led to the small car park via an attractive avenue of trees with vineyards on either side. It had been a dank day and it showed even more so against the tan and dark brown Cellar and Tasting Buildings in the soon to fade winter light.
I made my way into the Tasting Room – or rather the ‘Wine Sanctuary’ – as it is now called following extensive renovation by architect Rick Stander and interior designer Liesel Rossouw. The modern feel with its bright LED lighting and artworks provided quite a contrast to the outside that was offset by the olive green uniforms of the serving staffs. Lee was my attentive host who advised the tasting options which, besides MCC/Nougat and pre-bookable MCC/Chocolate Pairings (R120 and R130, respectively), were a choice between a Reserve Wine Tasting (6 top wines for R110) and the Standard Tasting (any 6 wines from the Villiera White/Red Ranges, MCC Range and Domaine Greer Range for R40. I opted for the Standard Tasting which, at current, increasing tasting fee amounts, was a bargain.
I decided against tasting any of the MCC Range as I had tasted many sparkling wines before at the annual PicknPay Stellenbosch Festival and at the Stellenbosch Street Soirée. I began with 4 Villiera whites which I sampled in pairs for comparison. First up were 2 Sauvignons Blanc, one unwooded and one wooded. The regular wine, made from Elgin grapes, was made in classic New Zealand style with pungent and intense green herbaceous, bell pepper, lemon and lime notes with a good intensity. The bright acidity was almost too bracing slightly to offset the balance and to mask the fruit intensity. This was a classic green style Sauvignon Blanc and priced at the right level (R79).
The Bush Vine Blanc Fumé slightly confused by its name since Blanc Fumé is a term associated with a Sauvignon Blanc and Bush Vine mostly refers to Chenin Blanc. The Sauvignon Blanc grapes come from a single dry land block on the farm and were part fermented in concrete eggs before the juice was racked to 50% new/old French barrels for the remaining fermentation but without malolactic fermentation to preserve freshness. The result was a deeper coloured straw wine with warmer, sweeter lemon, lime and slight vanilla aromas on the nose. The acidity on the palate was far better integrated for a fuller and more balanced wine.
My second flight, so to speak, were 2 Chenins Blanc. The regular wine (35% fermented in oak with 2 months ‘sur lie’ before bottling) was the weaker – and cheaper – of the 2 wines. Made in lemon citrus style, there was some ripeness and bright acidity on the palate but little of the expected Chenin richness or fruitiness. The Traditional Barrel Fermented wine was far better with defined aromas of lemon, pineapple, pear and white honey aromas on the nose of good intensity. Made from one block of bush vines and 2 trellised blocks, the grapes were part whole bunch pressed (35%) with the remainder de-stemmed. Malolactic fermentation was limited to 40% of the juice to give freshness and the wine fermented for 7 months in new/2nd fill French barrels. This made for a more complex wine with honeyed fruits on the palate that became more prominent at the finish, albeit the acidity was a little too forwards and fresh for my preference.
Villiera has been family owned since being started by cousins Jeff and Simon Grier in 1983, with 4 family generations being involved in the poultry and then wine business since the 1920s. It remains one of the largest private wineries in South Africa with 180 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinotage on the 400 hectare property, grown in equal amount (50% white. 50% red). Villiera specialises in MCC (45% production) that was developed in the mid-1980s via a 10-year partnership with Jean-Louis Denois, a Champagne specialist. Woolworths and Marks & Spencer, locally and in the UK, are major clients. White and red wines take minor positions (30% and 25%, respectively).
Villiera has a keen environmental awareness and eco-friendly ethos that pervades the viticulture and the winemaking: the winery was the first switch to solar power in 2010 and has one of the largest privately owned solar panel installations in South Africa; rainwater is harvested; natural pest control, water conservation, indigenous tree planting and the use of 35 owl boxes are standard practice in the vineyards; game drives are available to guests in an electric game viewer; and the farm is home to the Pebbles Project charity that educates and enriches the lives of disadvantaged families and children from the Wineland farming communities. These initiatives all feature as ‘back label’ stories on the Villiera wines: Natural Energy; the Duck and the Snail; the Villiera Family; Wisdom; Unlocking Nature; Carbon Footprint; Leave an Impression; Doing Things Slowly; and Sustainable Farming.
The red wines were next and I selected a comparison tasting of 2 Merlot. The Villiera Merlot was ruby red in colour and just full-bodied. Red berry and currant fruits showed limited complexity on the nose together with some mixed spices. The wine was not well balanced on the palate. Fruit flavours fell away to be dominated by flavours of cedar, with tight, astringent tannins and a bright acidity. I much preferred the flagship Munro Merlot – Munro is the second name of all the men in the Grier family – that was made from selected old vines and aged for longer in newer French barrels (18 months in 50% French oak compared with 10 months in 75% old barrels). The resultant wine was fuller bodied with much more intense red and dark cherry, currant and plum aromas with liquorice. The tannins were nonetheless bold and taut but better balanced by the richer fruit flavours.
Villiera invested in a 22 hectare vineyard in the Roussillon region in Southern France in 2006. The vineyards grow Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Chardonnay and Maccabeu (more commonly used to make White Rioja and Cava in Spain). Selected wines from the Domain Grier Collection are available for tasting and purchase, both in the tasting Room and online. The wines sport elegant white, grey or black labels with a simple and stylish silver pattern in which the fleur-de-lis meets Africa.
The Alba is a white Grenache blend and mostly (80%) the least known Grenache Gris. This is a pink skinned mutation of Grenache Noir, important in Roussillon, and more perfumed that Grenache Blanc. Grenache Blanc, which makes up the remaining 20% of the Alba, is a mutation of Grenache Noir. The vines are grown as field blends and the grapes co-fermented. The juice is barrel fermented with malolactic fermentation before undergoing 8 month maturation in oak. The wine showed a good intensity of fresh citrus, honey and peach/apricot stone fruit aromas on the nose. Fresh, bright and integrated acidity well balanced layered fruity flavours together with subtle citrus, almond and herb flavours. The fruitiness surprised for an Old World wine and for the Mediterranean climate. I liked it.
I tasted the Odyssea from Domaine Grier too. I felt this to be a South-East France equivalent of a Rhône blend but, instead of being Grenache-led with Syrah and Mourvèdre, the blend was mostly Syrah (50%) with Carignan and Grenache (30% and 20%, respectively). This made for an interesting wine and was my favourite wine of the tasting. The nose was bright and forwards, slightly atypical for an Old World wine, with aromas of red cherry, red plum, cranberry and definite pepper spice. The palate showed a much more Old World character with garrigue herbal and savoury flavours to complement more bitter fruits and right tannins, aided by limited ageing in old oak.
My last wine was a single variety Grenache (Noir) that also showed a good fruity intensity on the nose. The red cherry and red plum aromas with their smoky and pepper spice complexity, together with the pale ruby and medium-bodied appearance, could easily have made me mistake the wine for a Pinot Noir in a blind tasting. Grenache can be thought of a beefed-up Pinot Noir with a fuller body, more tannins and higher alcohol but with lower acidity. Oaky tannins came to the fore on the palate, held up by the fruit flavours, and good acidity for a clean palate.
Villiera made a good final tasting of the day. I had just enough time to taste the wines I wanted although the Cellar door was locked so I could not do the self-guided walkthrough on this occasion. The tasting experience was adequate and I would have liked to have heard more of the green and social credentials as that is a story worth hearing at a tasting. Further, the quality of the wines varied which always make an overall rating difficult, especially since I chose not to taste any of the MCC. I much preferred the wines priced over R140 which included the interesting and unexpected Domain Grier collection and so, on balance, I have rated a slim 4/5 for the wines. The investment in Roussillon shows the pioneering nature of Villiera and the Grier family which makes me interested to follow future developments and vintages. The future certainly seems green.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 Sauvignon Blanc – R79
2017 Sauvignon Blanc Fumé – R150
2018 Chenin Blanc – R65
2018 Traditional Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc – R143
2016 Domaine Grier Alba (80% Grenache Gris, 20% Grenache Blanc) – R199*
2016 Merlot – R86
2017 Monro Merlot – R199
2015 Domaine Grier Odyssea (50% Syrah, 30% Carignan, 20% Grenache) – R141 FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Domaine Grier Grenache – R136*